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How has Saudi Arabia’s KASP impacted the sector?

SACM and foreign schools thus have to coordinate their activities closely – something that doesn’t always happen. WES has warned that the process of engaging with KASP can be complex, “mandating that US institutions stay abreast of changing policies that sponsoring agencies institute”. Hinttula agrees universities have had to “adapt”.

A Saudi student performs at Thompson Rivers University, Canada. 90% of Saudis studying abroad do so through the KASP

Saudi enrolments in the US climbed from 22,700 to 34,100 last year – a leap of 50%

“Saudi Arabian cultural offices wish to receive regular reports and be invoiced in a certain way… and not all public institutions are always quick at responding to some of these business needs, and often these needs are not communicated in the clearest possible way,” he says.

Svaldi acknowledges there have been problems and hopes that a newly established “student portal system” will improve coordination between students, universities and Cultural Mission staff. She also says SACM is increasing the number of visits to foreign universities.

Recent advice from SACM has also asked institutions to accept student bookings directly or via SACM, rather than those that come via an agency (which often can mean a referral/commission payment is due).

As well as adjusting to specific processing (and payment) expectations, education providers have had to culturally adapt their education practices and policies, and manage heightened expectations as regards adequate housing or host family accommodation. KASPers can also underestimate the academic standards expected of them, say some.

“Saudis want to be invoiced in a certain way… often these needs are not communicated in the clearest possible way”

Hinttula touches on unique gender issues which KASP students have brought with them: “If for example a young, female English teacher from the UK or US is not familiar with students from Saudi Arabia, she may be wondering why some of the male students might initially be avoiding eye contact with her? Is that a cultural or performance related issue?” he says, pointing out that some of his US staff needed further guidance when KASP students started arriving in large numbers.

Mike Henniger, associate director of international marketing at Thompson Rivers University in BC, Canada, which has about 400 KASPers, says adjustment has been less of a struggle. “It was mostly getting that Arabic speaker on staff. We also… trained our staff to deal with [cultural issues]. We are very proactive.”

The reward, he says, has been an “incredible” cultural impact on campus—a benefit recognised by all those who talked to The PIE News. Lauren Cullen, Admissions Officer at Saint Mary’s University in NS, Canada, says Saudis do tend to group together but are happy to step outside their comfort zone, trying their hand at skating or ice-hockey for example.

Educators also take satisfaction at how KASP is modernising Saudi society by eroding cultural barriers, religious extremism and gender inequality. Some 73% of the eighth phase of the programme (which consists of around 9,000 students) are female, although all will need the permission of a male relative to travel abroad.

One alumnus of Saint Mary’s returned to Saudi Arabia and set up an e-portal career gateway for women

Cullen points to one recent alumnus of Saint Mary’s who returned to Saudi Arabia and set up an e-portal career gateway for women, glowork.

In another example, Khalid Al-Khudair won the university’s Young Alumni Award in 2010 (he may not have studied under auspices of KASP) for initiating an award-winning recycling program while working at KPMG in Saudi Arabia, which he says was inspired by his experience at Saint Mary’s. The programme, in which money earned from recycling went to local charities, was so successful that similar projects were implemented throughout the Kingdom.

Dr Joanna Newman, director of the UK Higher Education International Unit (part of Universities UK) highlights the social and cultural ramifications. “There are benefits to UK higher education from the King Abdullah scheme beyond the financial – there is particular emphasis on female education”, she says.

She signals the recent establishment of the first women’s university in Saudi Arabia, Princess Noura University, which the Unit, as part of its involvement in the UK-Saudi taskforce, is supporting via professional development.

“There are benefits to UK higher education beyond the financial – there is particular emphasis on female education”

Yet questions remain over what happens to KASP after 2020 and how safe it is to rely on this market. Citigroup predicts the country will cease to be an oil exporter by 2030, and the future of the global economy is still uncertain. With this in mind, for how long will Saudi be able to afford KASP at current costs? (It has spent at least $5 billion on the programme since 2005, according to the Wall Street Journal).

On this, WES says universities should not forget the small but growing market of self-funded Saudis (around 13% fall into this category by some counts). It disagrees that a recruitment bubble is developing that will one day burst. It claims that while US universities are already too dependent on China, India and Korea, KASP is still playing a vital role in stimulating Saudi mobility – and this may yield more self-funders down the line.

“The King Abdullah scholarship is not just the lubricant for mobility of Saudi students but the engine propelling it,” says director of research and advisory services, Dr Rahul Choudaha. “As economies become more globalised and knowledge-based, even an oil rich country like Saudi cannot remain immune to the importance of international higher education and its impact on individuals, societies and government.”

• Additional reporting by Nicholas Cullen.

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